Ironfell Is The Cutest, Most Unfair MMO Of Today

The joy of Hex.
When games get more complex, the notion of balance disappears over the horizon. Swallowed in a writing sea of stats and players, while the developers struggle to keep their ship afloat. Then scurvy comes along and they’re eventually eaten by a whale! Hmm, that analogy got out of hand. Ironfell, a (deep breath) one-man made free MMO strategy game has an interesting idea about balance: it says “phooey”, and hands out resources according to how much you play. The more you’re there, the more you get to help your attempt at world domination. Not a gold-farmer? You can just buy some.

Those concerns probably come after a couple of hours of play, but to begin with it’s not so hostile, placing you on a little spit of land to call your own that no-one can touch. Here you’re free to mine the land a little and play around with your first little unit, sending him to hexes to gather supplies and maybe build rude signposts. It’s cute and slick: the interface is clean, with menus that slide in from the side. I love that. Do more of that, developers. Clicking on players in the chat will let you see what others are up to, which is both a tactical boost and a learning tool. I’ve been watching as others build out, seeing their sprawl engulf the realm.

I’ve not built beyond my own realm, yet. I’m a big scaredy-cat. But if I did, given that the game is willingly “unfair” (it’s in the tagline), I’d probably buy some resources and head off into the promised land of “trading, epic ocean realms, naval battles and castles.” I think those words are probably like a Bat Signal to Adam.

The video below is timelapsey. It is a slow slog, really.

Neatly, you can use your account on a browser, on your PC, on your cool uncle’s Mac, and on Android, so it’s playable pretty much everywhere. If your fridge is somehow running Chrome, I’ll bet you can play it while making a sandwich.


  1. Dana says:

    Looks pretty nifty, but I abhor idea of buying power.

  2. aliksy says:

    …and hands out resources according to how much you play. The more you’re there, the more you get…

    You mean like almost every MMO? Most of them boil down to a simple “time=power” exercise (rather than something more like time = practice = skill = success).

    • adamvan says:

      That equation makes no sense at all. What you meant to say is:
      success = time + practice + skill

      • Kitsuninc says:

        That equation makes sense to me, and yours makes less.

        He’s saying that Time = Time spent Practicing which = Skill from practicing which = Success according to your skill.

        Success = Time + Practice + Skill implies that time and practice are separate things, which they aren’t in a fair skill-based game. Also you should replace Skill with Talent. Success = Practice + Talent.

        • mandrill says:

          Talent is innate though, not something you can learn. The first equation (Time=Practice=Skill=Success) still makes more sense.

          • Gnarf says:

            Talent being innate does not have anything to do with whether or not it fits into the equation there.

        • Xepter says:

          The problem is, that OP said time = power is bad, but time = success is good, which is just the same. Sorry, but equations work that way, you can’t just say 1 = 2 = 3 = 4 because one number is followed by the other…

      • zbeeblebrox says:

        What “practice” are you doing in an MMO? It’s all the character’s doing. YOU just sit there and wait to push the next button. And the only skill is in how efficiently you manage the inevitable power increase, so it’s purely a meta consideration. As far as direct application to a typical MMO, you sit there; character gets stronger. Rinse, repeat.

        • jrodman says:

          What a tired meme.

          There is skill involved in MMOs, even when they are of the button bar sort. Just because you don’t happen to think this skill is significant or exciting or good does not mean it does not exist.

          • hungrycookpot says:

            I realize this is a super old comment, but I just have to say:

            Skill != Knowledge.

            MMOs require a high level of specific knowledge, about how the skills work and interact, what stats to boost and what stats dont matter, where the best stuff is. Anyone could be provided with this knowledge in a format they can readily consume and become very proficient at an MMO instantly. Skill is a different thing, which requires practice and repetition in order to gain, and in that definition the only skill that MMOs require is basic computer proficiency, having high mouse-eye coordination and being able to memorize and quickly locate and navigate many abstract icons and menus.

    • Shuck says:

      Although the “time=power” equation is the basis for the majority of play in MMOs, they’re also usually set up so that at least some modicum of skill and strategy is required for high-powered play. In fact, in theory all that grind was, in part, supposed to be preparing players for the subtle, in-depth knowledge required for the end-game.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        Haha. You almost had me there, when you said that MMOs require skill.

  3. Ratchet says:

    This looks like the slow, tedious slog I think it is coupled an incredibly steep and frustrating learning curve. Exactly my style.

    Also, I like how when you guys make links you link to the actual place the link should go to instead of linking me to a page with matching tags on your own site. Bravo.

  4. Sam says:

    I’m not sure I understand this.
    It’s an obviously pay-to-win game, but that’s seemingly treated as being fine because the developer admits it?

    • PleasingFungus says:

      At least the art style is nice.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      By acknowledging it, they are hopefully designing the game for it, rather than simple designing the game then restricting access.

      Perhaps they can balance “power” (whether paid directly, or earned over time) into tiers, or rewards, so that a weaker character won’t continually get stomped by a wallet-warrior

    • DeVadder says:

      To me? Yes.

      In my opinion there are games that require an equal playing field (FPS, MOBA) and in those i hate Pay2Win (but also out of game progression like the ranks in modern FPS) and others that do not.
      That second category for me includes MMO. If i pretend to be a sorcerer, space pilot or in this case time-traveller-king-whatever, then it actually annoys me when the game forces everybody to be on the same level all the time.
      Sure if the game is unplayable without putting in more and more money, than no. But if done properly i do not mind some pay2win. As long as it is not the only way to win and not all it takes to win.

    • Nethlem says:

      At least better than some other ideas out there…
      Some developer build an iPhone game exclusively around the idea of paying money to win.
      It wasn’t really a game, players buy points with money and depending on the amount of points they have they get ranked on a global leader board. The player in first place gets to set a text message that everybody can read next to his ranking, motivating people to be first place.

      In the end Apple did not approve the game which is kind of an pity, would have been interesting to see if something as simple as that would actually take off.

  5. JonClaw says:



  6. davidcolquhoun says:

    Hey, thankyou for the post! I’m the developer :)

    Hoaxfish is right… the game is designed around that unfairness.

    In almost all MMORTS’s… to keep things fair…. you are restricted to a fixed amount of resources or units that you can take into each battle. Or you might be restricted to only players the same level as you.

    But i if you design a game like that… you might as well call StarCraft a MMO… it has lots of players and its lobby isnt that interesting… and there are instanced battles with a finite resource limit.

    So in Ironfell… the longer you’ve been playing, the more resources have. And you take that full advantage into battles. Naval battles between top players often end because one of them runs out of resources!

    But that isn’t fun for new players. So to counter that:
    – you can buy resources – and instantly get to your enemies level.
    – and older players are encouraged out of the new player areas (not forced out,just encouraged).

    One of the interesting things I’ve seen happen is, a top player with ridiculous amounts of resources hangs out in the new player areas… and gives away resources and tips to new people to help them get started. He’s doing this to be nice… but also to gain more allies :)

    Another thing… Guerrilla warfare! People who don’t have much time or money to play… often sail a single Carrack around the oceans picking off vulnerable expensive targets.

    So Ironfell is free-to-play…. but not big corporate evil free-to-play.

    • frightlever says:

      Just because you’re not a corporation, doesn’t make it not-evil. If you’re happy that people with addictive personalities are paying money to “win” your game, then good for you. You’ll be a corporation before you know it.

      • Hoaxfish says:

        I don’t think you need an addictive personality to think about utilising micro-transactions. A lot of games sell buyable “things” as cosmetic (for people who like to “stand out”), or “progression” shortcuts (for “busy” people). At least in terms of progression boosts, you’re actively avoiding the addictive quality that pushes people to rinse&repeat grind.

      • ryanrybot says:

        It’s all about the perceived value people are getting for their money. If someone thinks that’s it’s worth paying to play a game on a more competitive level, I’m not going to complain.

      • DarkFarmer says:

        Its like, 5 bucks to buy as many resources as you need to get going. It’s not like its 5 bucks just to get a single weapon that you still need to pay to level up to effectiveness (cough, Planetside 2).

        I think he is correct in saying there is a difference between him and the larger corporate competition, this game is reasonably priced.

        Making games costs money, and people don’t buy indie games that aren’t bundlers, igf winners, platformers or tower defenses, so you need to make it F2P to get users, and you need to make that P2W to get people to pony up some cash.

    • Kamos says:

      A game *designed* around grind, where success depends on it… Where you pay to win. And I thought World of Warcraft, a game designed around a Skinner box, was evil enough.

      • arccos says:

        That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Time is a limited resource just as much as money. Asking people to invest time in a un-fun activity is exactly the same as asking them to invest money. One isn’t better or worse than the other.

        I get that some people would want to play games that are unpleasant for a period or time (or money) to causing interesting, fun game mechanics to bubble up. More power to both the developers and the players if that’s the game they want to play.

    • DeVadder says:

      Sounds awesome.
      I will definately try this. I hate when MMORTS do it the other way, dodging the whole essence of beeing a MMO. And i also really like when higher ranked players can (but are not encouraged to) use their force on smaller ones. If everything including other players scales with you, you do not gain any power at all.
      Sounds like an Eve-y approach to MMORTS.

  7. Liudeius says:

    I think you crashed the server.

  8. whexican says:

    Tusser said it best: “A fool and his money are soon parted”

    However, I would give this a go to see how it plays.

  9. Snakejuice says:

    I really don’t understand the pay-to-win-concept. I mean if we are going to have a money-throwing competition, wouldn’t it be more fun to go to a night-club and see who can pour the largest amount of champagne bottles down the sink?

  10. Stackler says:

    Calling this a “game” is insulting to every game out there. This is not game design, it’s designing a gambling system. “Developers” like you are everything that’s wrong with the gaming hobby.

  11. Tyrx says:

    I might be over-estimating the “time spent = power” factor of this game, but what exactly prevents people from just botting their way to the top of the leaderboard? Games which follow this kind of mentally usually just become deserts with little to no real active players amid the thousands of bots.

  12. Liudeius says:

    Does anyone know a game similar to this but actually GOOD?
    And not any of that MMO stuff like War of Legends.
    Does Civ play like this but actually fun? I’ve always avoided Civ because the screen shots look boring, but I’d really like a nice civilization building game.

  13. davidcolquhoun says:

    Thanks for these comments, its all good feedback.

    I could make a second universe, with a new set of servers with no pay-for-resouces or pay-to-win stuff. But with a $50 up-front payment, kinda like buying an old school game in a box at a shop. It might be worth setting up as an experiment to see how many people really would prefer that model.

    • jrodman says:

      For my part I dislike pretty much every component of the design choices, but then again I also don’t really like playing with other people (that I don’t know). So this game isn’t for me.

      I kind of suspect a lot of the reactions are coming from other people this game isn’t for.

      But it also sounds like the design choices kind of go together. I’m not sure you can make it a 50 dollar game and leave the feel intact. How will people catch up? Also you won’t get takers at 50 bucks, but that’s another story.

    • Galaxy613 says:

      Frankly, I think this model is perfect. I just started but I could already make a dent in the world already, nothing’s stopping me from recruiting 10 swordsmen and taking out a lone woodcutter someone left idling around and attacking a archer strongerhold. All my men died but I still made a dent in their defense for later. :D I was surprised I could go through ANY portal, “Transparent” is the name of this game, both in-game and how it’s monetized, and it is amazing.

  14. Rylandrc says:

    Just to help quell some of the uncertainties I’ve been hearing; I’ve been playing Ironfell for a while now, and I can safely say that I have become one of the more accomplished players (#15 in terms of number of units), without paying a single cent for the game (sorry David :( ). Gathering resources is pretty simple and easy if you’re smart about it and it’s a great exercise in efficiency. In the end, it boils down to your experience and your abilities in stealth, treachery, and manipulation (all of which I excessively enjoy :). I recommend giving it a shot to see for yourself!

    • vlonk says:

      Just took Ironfell for a spin. Lets just say this is a mix of Eve-Online Wormhole lifestyle and a Lego / sandbox / Minecraft spinoff.

      Also, after just having a nice chat with Rylandrc ingame and witnessing an epic duel in a player hosted arena I can attest that Ironfell is all about the charming community and creative avenues.

      A unique point that is utterly missing in the comments and the article so far:

      In Ironfell you can go everywhere. You can see everything. You can click through every tunnelsystem into every world. No fog of war, no borders, nothing stopping you.

      Doubleclicking on any player will jump to wherever he is right now. Another doubleclick and you are centering on his screenposition.

      As a newbie after spending your starting resources you can effortlessly click your way through the universe. It is like glass.

      So… being part of the universe costs nothing. Shaping the universe on the other hand… thats for sale ,- )